Iraq's Transition: On a Knife Edge
Iraq's Transition: On a Knife Edge
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
Report / Middle East & North Africa 7 minutes

Iraq's Transition: On a Knife Edge

The situation in Iraq is more precarious than at any time since the April 2003 ouster of the Baathist regime, largely reflecting the Coalition's inability to establish a legitimate and representative political transition process.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

The situation in Iraq is more precarious than at any time since the April 2003 ouster of the Baathist regime, largely reflecting the Coalition's inability to establish a legitimate and representative political transition process. The broad plan sketched out by UN Special Adviser Lakhdar Brahimi, the apparent willingness of the U.S. to delegate at least some political responsibility to the UN and the decision to loosen the de-Baathification decree are all steps in the right direction. But critical questions remain both unanswered and, in some cases, unasked.

The history of post-Saddam Iraq is one of successive, short-lived attempts by the U.S. to mould a political reality to its liking. With each false start and failed plan, realistic options for a successful and stable political transition have become narrower and less attractive. Getting it right this time is urgent and vital. There may not be many, or any, opportunities left.

In undertaking his mission, Brahimi inherited several stark and in some ways conflicting political constraints: the U.S. commitment to "transfer sovereignty" to an unspecified Iraqi body by 30 June 2004; the unrepresentative character of the existing Iraqi institution, the Interim Governing Council; the absence for the foreseeable future of a credible and reliable Iraqi security force and therefore the need for a continued U.S.-led force; strong objection by the most influential Shiite representative, Ayatollah Sistani, to endowing any non-elected government with genuine authority; and the practical impossibility of holding national, democratic elections before January 2005.

Added together, these factors lead to two clear conclusions: first, fundamental change is needed soon if the growing vacuum separating the occupation's governing institutions from the Iraqi people is to be narrowed; and secondly, whatever happens on 30 June will at best involve a delegation of something far less than full sovereign powers to a body falling far short of being representative.

The answer is not to scrap the 30 June date, as some have suggested, but to redefine what will happen on that day, and the lead up to it, as a serious redistribution of power -- more substantial even than the present Brahimi plan proposes -- between the U.S., the UN and the new Iraqi institutions. Four interrelated steps are required:

  • Political responsibility for the transition should be handed over to the UN, acting through an appropriately empowered Special Representative. Before 30 June 2004, that empowerment should involve the capacity to appoint a provisional government (subject to later rejection by the proposed Consultative Assembly: see further below). After 30 June, it should involve certain residual powers to supervise the political process; break a deadlock between Iraqi institutions; act as a check on Iraqi executive decisions that may exceed its limited mandate; or, in the event a very broad consensus exists among Iraqis, approve of amendments to the Temporary Administrative Law (TAL). The UN, worried that it lacks the capacity and fearing that it would be setting itself up for failure, is manifestly reluctant to play this latter role. However, the post-30 June Iraqi provisional government clearly will not be exercising full authority; nor do Sistani and others want it to. The powers vested in the Special Representative would be those, and only those, needed to maximise stability and the prospects of national, democratic elections in January 2005. The UN would enjoy far greater legitimacy than the U.S. in fulfilling this role. Even so, such powers ought to be used extremely sparingly and cautiously. The real check on governmental decisions is likely to come from its multi-headed structure (president, vice-presidents and prime minister), and due deference should thus be accorded Iraqi governmental actions.
  • A provisional government of technocratic experts should be appointed by the UN Special Representative, marking a clear break in character and membership from the Interim Governing Council. This government would be essentially a caretaker one, charged with running day-to-day affairs, focusing on public order, economic reconstruction and public services, and preparing general elections with the UN Special Representative's advice and assistance. Many Iraqis fear that those in charge today will do everything they can to perpetuate their rule tomorrow and that unelected politicians will take decisions with long-lasting impact. Limiting to the degree possible the participation of partisan, political leaders in the provisional government, strictly confining its powers and providing UN oversight will help assuage those fears. In presenting the outlines of his plan, Brahimi endorsed this view, speaking of a caretaker government composed of people of competence and integrity.
  • To widen political participation, a National Conference of Iraqis should be convened, which would elect a Consultative Assembly. At a minimum, the Consultative Assembly should have the power to reject the composition of the new government and any decrees that it passes. Should the Assembly reject the government, the UN Special Representative would be tasked with proposing another; should the Assembly reject a government decree and, after resubmission in a modified form, reject it again, the Special Representative would step in as an arbiter to overcome the deadlock. Since the ouster of the Baathist regime, Iraq has lacked any sense of political cohesion. As the U.S. has sought to micro-manage the political process, individual groups have at best struck separate agreements with the Coalition. The proposed National Convention could be an important first step toward creating a sense of collective ownership, and elaboration of a common political platform that eschews violence and commits participants to work for a democratic political system. Religious and tribal Sunni leaders as well as followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, who have felt excluded, will need to be brought in, regardless of their opposition to the occupation.

    In Brahimi's proposal, both the National Conference and the Consultative Assembly it elected would come into being only after creation of the provisional government. This is cause for understandable concern among some Iraqis: hand-picking a government and depriving these bodies of any role in its establishment risks undermining their credibility even before they have begun. But Brahimi is justifiably worried that reversing the sequence may unduly delay establishment of a government and overly politicise it.
  • Security arrangements should be redefined by a Security Council resolution which re-authorises the U.S.-led multinational force from 30 June 2004 until an elected government takes office and decides on its future but requires joint approval from the U.S. command and the Iraqi provisional government for major offensive operations. While an international force presence is an indispensable necessity during the transition period, recent events in Fallujah and elsewhere have made clear that major offensive operations are potentially counterproductive unless undertaken with significant local support. If 30 June is to involve any power shift at all back to the Iraqis, and not be totally empty and cosmetic, some element of control over major security decisions must be involved. Clearly, operational matters involving force protection and responses dictated by immediate events must continue to remain the sole responsibility of the U.S. command. But where strategic choices are involved, and the multinational force is acting after deliberation, it is both possible and necessary that operations be jointly approved. And the only body capable in practice of giving that approval -- until general elections are held -- will be the provisional government.

The fiction that 30 June will be about 'transferring sovereignty' should be given up. As a legal matter, sovereignty is already vested in the Iraqi state and 'embodied' in its interim institutions, as provided by UN Security Council Resolution 1511. But as a practical matter, the sovereign power exercised by the new Iraqi government will remain incomplete, and to pretend otherwise could do lasting damage to the very notion of sovereignty in Iraqi eyes. What Iraqis should be getting after 30 June, is more such power -- and the space to create a more inclusive and cohesive polity -- but still necessarily incomplete sovereign power until proper general elections are held. To minimise the friction associated with this necessarily incomplete power transfer, residual civilian powers should be exercised during the transitional period by the UN, not the U.S.

So far, the Iraqi people have been virtual observers to a pas-de-deux between the Coalition Provisional Authority and the Interim Governing Council: if they are not truly involved in the process, they can hardly be expected to defend it. The fact that Iraqis who heretofore had not supported either Moqtada al-Sadr or the insurgents in the so-called Sunni Triangle joined or tacitly backed the April uprisings gives credence to the notion that as long as basic grievances are not addressed, and a far wider spectrum of Iraqis is not included in the political process, violence will increase rather than diminish.

The options available today are few and bad, a measure of the staggering misjudgements that have plagued U.S. post-war management from the start, and there is no guarantee that even these steps can stem Iraq's descent toward instability and civil war. Nor is there any guarantee that this approach will find takers. The Bush administration may resist yielding ultimate control over developments in Iraq just when its electoral fortunes may turn on them. With anger spreading and strong-arm military operations in Fallujah, Sadr City and elsewhere likely to generate tomorrow's even stronger-willed insurgency, the UN may baulk at getting dragged into what it once was kept out of, and a growing number of countries may be tempted to follow Spain and leave the Coalition rather than strengthen it.

But a U-turn from a stubborn administration, and engagement from a sceptical international community, may represent the last remaining chance of success.

Baghdad/Brussels, 27 April 2004

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.